Highlighting the History of Firehouse No. 1

Fine art students collaborate with firefighters to create historic mural


A firefighter probationary model helps the artists with reference. Photo courtesy of Carol Nunnelly.

Who doesn’t feel safer knowing that first responders are on the job 24-7? Fulfilling a commitment to serve and protect all San Franciscans and visitors, our heroic firefighters are always on the job.

If someone falls into the bay, gets stuck on the cliff overlooking the ocean, finds themselves trapped in a toxic burning building, or even if you are in need of emergency medical treatment, the firefighters are there for you. These are people trained to calmly reassure under pressure while the rest of us mortals “freak out”!

Not only that, firefighters are loyal, great cooks, in excellent shape, and are family oriented and friendly to strangers. That is high praise for people we have just become better acquainted with recently while painting a mural for Firehouse No. 1, located at 535 Folsom Street. They serve the Tenderloin and are a fully equipped station complete with an engine company and a rescue squad as well as three teams adept at solving almost any crisis.

When the house moved to make way for the new SFMOMA tower on Howard Street, a new firehouse was created in a neighborhood where the view of the side of buildings made for drab views of nothing inspiring.  

Enter Academy of Art University’s Vice President of Campus Safety and Lab Resources Michael Petricca. He made the suggestion to Daniel Gracia, vice president, Local 798 and firefighter for Firehouse No. 1: “Why not create a beautiful mural representing a timeline of all the firehouses that have been occupied by Firehouse No. 1?”

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Firehouse No. 1 is a group of dedicated and courageous firefighters, who often go on 30 calls a day to keep the properties and residents of San Francisco safe. Photo courtesy of Carol Nunnelly.

A committee of firefighters was formed to organize the project and Craig Nelson, director of the School of Fine Art, approved the project. A collaboration was formed with a goal to showcase the talents of the students of fine art—mural under the direction of Carol Nunnelly to develop designs, oversee the production of the painting of the mural, and manage the main objective; attract visual interest by highlighting the historical nature of Firehouse No. 1.

Students in the class included Christopher Austin, Aiwen Chen, and Na Rae Lee. They set about to create preliminary sketches and began painting to establish the chosen design.

Of particular interest in making the collaboration a success, the special skills each student brought to the project included a scale drawing by Austin, paint blocking the beautiful colors by Lee, and painting expertise by Chen.  All this occurred under the watchful eyes of both Nunnelly and Nelson.

To complete the team, we were aided by the expert help of Tomutsu Takashima. His direction in creating the lifelike portraits of actual firefighters from Firehouse No. 1 was invaluable.

Other instructors offering help included Melinda Mettler, who provided lettering, Melinda May, who painted along with Camille LaPointe-Lyons. Alumni Therese Morgan and Derick Moore joined these volunteers.

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Chris Austin paints the letting for the mural. Photo courtesy of Carol Nunnelly.

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Aiwen Chen finds access for her work of painting the firefighters’ clothing. Photo courtesy of Carol Nunnelly.

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One of the firefighters looks on as the artists work on the mural. Photo courtesy of Carol Nunnelly.

No mural is complete without stories that happen along the way. Here are a few:

A cat in a tree was painted to resemble firefighter John’s family cat Winkey. One-eyed Winkey is the “cat in a tree”!

The famous fire that happened in the Tenderloin is depicted in the Original Joe’s panel.

Firefighters shared lunch and coffee with the artists and collaborated on the design.

Upon painting the figures, the firefighters were happy to pose and offer modeling help for the artists.

Mike Butler, whose life was saved by a firefighter when he had a heart attack, generously donated the scaffolding.

The large table in the firehouse kitchen and dining area is an example of ingenuity. When asked how it came to be in the house since it clearly would not fit through a door, the story of how it was moved at 3 a.m. from the Howard location to the new Folsom house and the new house was built around it.

The artists were excited to contribute to the annual Firehouse Christmas party and showed up with face paint and painted the children’s faces.


Academy of Art University’s latest mural, located at Firehouse No. 1 on Folsom St. Photos by Bob Toy.

With all the quality help, collaboration and inspired cooperation between the firefighters and the artists, this project surpassed all its goals.  As stated by a firefighter: “We knew it would be beautiful, but are really pleased and it turned out even better than anyone imagined.”

Special thanks to Bob Toy, who photographed the Christmas Party.